May 31st, 2020

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My Big Hairy Friend

Minamoto no Yoshitsune really existed (he was a major figure in the 12th-century Genpei War), but he has at least as vigorous a life in the semi-legendary realm, as a hero in the Heike Monogatari and subsequently in Noh and kabuki plays. In these, his bosom pal is the large and formidable Buddhist warrior-monk, Benkei, with whom Yoshitsune spends time on the run from his far less lovable (but ultimately triumphant) brother, Yoritomo. Their exploits are characterised by strength, courage and fighting prowess, but also by cunning and general coolness. The two are said to have become friends after fighting each other on a bridge.

The last detail naturally reminded me of another semi-historical (or perhaps we should say demi-semi-historical) pair of outlaws from my own country's past, Robin Hood and Little John - who also met and became besties after fighting on a bridge. (Given Benkei's being a monk, we might also fold Friar Tuck into the mix.)

Is it possible that there was some mutual influence involved in the two sets of legends? I'd love to think so, but busy as the silk road no doubt was, there must be a limit to how much cultural transmission it could reasonably bear. And anyway, it soon occurred to me that these two pairs weren't unique. The grandaddies of Yoshitsune/Robin Hood and Benkei/Little John are surely Gilgamesh and Enkidu, the Sumerian odd couple who also began their friendship by fighting. Like Yoshitsune, Gilgamesh appears to have been a historical figure before he had a second career as an epic hero.

I wonder if there are other examples out there who fit the bill?
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Dahl's Chickens, Home to Roost at Last

For anyone who wants to read it, my review of Roald Dahl: Wales of the Unexpected is live at the Journal of Welsh Writing in English. (Full disclosure, the editor was my head of school at the time.) The book was published in 2016, and I submitted my review in July the following year: it's just gone live. This gives me hope that Literary Studies Deconstructed too may yet garner a second review one day...